On Friday 30th September at around 10.30am, I got into a small plane, which took to the sky and on reaching 13,000 feet, I threw myself out of the door. What happened next caused me to temporarily re-evaluate my whole approach to facing fears and living without limits.

The background

I’ve wanted to do a skydive for as long as I can remember, in fact someone recently reminded me that I was talking about doing one as long as 12 years ago.

However, despite this being a long-standing goal of mine, I had never given the logistics of the ‘jump’ much thought. My assumption was that I would do a tandem jump, and that strapped to a qualified professional skydiver, I’d have little to worry about – other than the obvious, the parachute not opening.

So, as I talked about in my post ‘What do you trust yourself enough to do?’, I was surprised to learn that there are several ways in which you can exit the plane.

The training

I chose to do an AFF level 1 jump. AFF stands for accelerated free fall and the ‘accelerated’ part is because it’s the quickest route to solo skydiving. In order to do my AFF level 1, I attended a full day training course where I learnt a number of drills, including what to do in emergency situations such as parachute malfunction.

We went over the drills so many times I was repeating them in my sleep. I had little fear that I would forget what to do.

The unexpected

So what happened next?

Nothing.

As I hurtled to the ground at speeds of between 90 and 120 mph, I suffered from sensory overload and I suffered badly. I can only describe sensory overload as a blankness that I have never before felt. I remember seeing the cameraman in front of me and thinking ‘man’ and nothing else. I had no concept of what was happening to me.

If you watch the video, at the beginning of my jump, you’ll see my instructors trying to get me to react and start the free fall drills that I knew off by heart. Eventually, my brain kicks in and I begin my practice pulls. When I realize that I’ve reached 6000 feet, the point at which I need to pull my chute, I react but not quickly enough and my primary instructor deploys my chute for me.

My first Skydive from Caroline Leon on Vimeo.

Sweet relief

As my canopy opened and I slowed down to speeds of around 14 mph, the overriding sensation for me was one of relief. During the training, landing myself without the help of my instructors was my biggest worry but in this moment, regaining the full use of my senses was a moment that trumped any fear of being totally alone.

I promptly checked my canopy and concluded that it looked good (big, rectangular and sound, to be precise). Next I released my steering toggles and ‘pumped to crotch’ twice. Before I could contemplate steering I heard the following over the radio: “Caroline, to show that you can hear me, turn to face the sun now.” I had totally forgotten that I even had a radio. Radio failure was another of my big fears in training. I pulled down on my right steering toggle and as if by magic, I slowly turned to face the sun, in all of its glory. That was a moment that I will remember for the rest of my life.

The landing

After a few practice turns and flares (The act of pulling down the brakes of the canopy in order to slow it down) over the buildings of the airfield, I began to head for the landing field. I passed the large white arrow (which we had been told to face in order to land into the wind for the softest landing) and turned to line up to it at around 500 feet. Very quickly I could see I wasn’t going to get back to the landing field in time, I had gone too far beyond it and the ground was approaching fast. I was okay with that, I was only the next field along and I could see a fellow AFF student landing a similar distance away in another field.

I put both my feet and knees together, slightly bent my knees and brought both my steering toggles down to flare for landing. My landing was soft and I rolled onto my side. For a second I worried that my parachute would land on top of me but it didn’t, it fell to the ground behind me.

I was delighted. I scooped my parachute up, as we had been taught to and started to walk back to the landing field where a van was waiting to drive us back to the airfield. Without thinking, I let out an almighty scream and for the 5 minute walk back to the van I giggled incessantly to myself. It felt good to be alive and I felt so proud of myself for what I had just done.

The feedback

I was on a complete high as I strolled into the office for my debrief and whilst my skydive landing had been pretty soft, what my primary instructor said to me in that 5 minute debrief brought me back down to earth with quite a bump.

He asked me to tell him what happened from the point at which he had said to me on the plane “are you ready to skydive?” I ran through what I could remember including the fact that I temporarily froze before starting my practice pulls. When I finished, he said to me “now I’ll tell you what happened. You exited the plane okay and then you did nothing.”

I had failed my AFF level 1. Deploying your own canopy is a key part of passing and I hadn’t done it.

The de-brief was not a pleasant experience and it concluded with my instructor telling me that perhaps skydiving was not for me. I felt pretty crushed. Not long afterwards I left the airfield and started the three and a half hour drive back home.

Is life really limitless?

I had a lot of time to think on that drive and I started to give myself a really hard time. I couldn’t get my head around the fact that I had failed to react to a life-threatening situation. My whole reason for undertaking this jump was to prove to myself that I could trust myself and as far as I was concerned I had proved the opposite.

The fact that someone had said that I probably shouldn’t try my AFF 1 again, left me reeling. Had I reached my limit? Surely anything was possible if you could face your fears? But maybe not. My primary instructor seemed to think not.

Over the next 48 hours, I felt worse and worse. I woke up at 3am the following morning filled with panic and started to go through my drills. I still couldn’t believe that I hadn’t pulled my chute.

I had returned home to discover that my internet connection wasn’t working and so was unable to google sensory overload as I had hoped to. It wasn’t for another 48 hours that I read up on sensory overload in skydiving and learnt just how common it is. I found several personal accounts of people who had failed their AFF level 1 and gone on to complete many successful jumps. I started to feel better.

Over the following few days, two more things happened. Firstly I called my secondary instructor who was in fact the person who had trained me. I wanted to talk to him about my jump and get his view on me trying again.  He reassured me that my jump hadn’t been that bad. He said I exited the plane well and held a good body position but he made reference to the sensory overload that I had suffered but said he’d happily take me up again to repeat my AFF level 1 if I wanted to.

Later that same day, a DVD of my jump arrived in the post, I put it into my DVD player and nervously hit play. The first time I watched it, my stomach did somersaults as I watched the instructors trying to ‘wake me up’. But having watched it a few times now, what I can see is that I did come around, I did complete my practice pulls and after waving off I was about to pull my chute when my instructor pulled it for me.

I’m under no illusion that I would have located my pull, or even pulled it and my instructor pulled because we had dropped below 6000 feet, the point at which I should have done so. But I now feel reassured that I did do a lot more than “nothing”, which incidentally I already knew before I watched the DVD.

A lesson about trust

I have learnt a hell of a lot about myself from this experience but what sprang to my mind yesterday, after watching my DVD and thinking back to the de-brief I’d had, was the following NLP presupposition: ‘There is no such thing as failure, only feedback.’ because of someone elses feedback, I had convinced myself that I had failed and only through research and video footage did I start to give myself some credit for what I had achieved.

The lesson for me was huge. What I learnt about trusting myself wasn’t as a result of whether or not I pulled my chute. It was about having faith that I had tried my best and trusting the initial feeling of achievement that I promptly allowed to dissipate on receiving feedback from someone else.

Do you have experience of letting other people’s views or feedback make you doubt yourself? Or perhaps the opposite, experiences of times when you’ve trusted yourself in the face of a contrary view? If so I’d love to hear about it. If you enjoyed this post please do share using one of the buttons below.

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